04 August 2008

Passing Fancy (出来ごころ, 1933)

While in Canada, I picked up Criterion’s Eclipse Series 10: Silent Ozu – Three Family Comedies. Watching Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro, 1933), I was reminded how one can always count on Ozu to serve up a perfectly balanced mixture of pathos, humour, and human interest. Passing Fancy has enough slapstick to make the audience laugh, but not so much that it falls into the realm of an unlikely farce (à la the Farrelly brothers). Ozu adds just enough sentimentality to warm the heart without causing the audience to feel nauseous (J-dorama directors take note!). The film is also filled with many moments that the audience will recognize in their own lives.

Takeshi Sakamoto stars as Kihachi, a single father of a boy called Tomio (Tomio Aoki aka Tokkan Kozo) who is just barely able to look after himself and his son because he is illiterate and has a weakness for sake. One night as he stumbles home from a drinking binge with his friend and co-worker Jiro, he happens upon a jobless girl called Harue who is desperate for help. He takes Harue to Otome, the woman who runs the local eatery/izakaya. Otome takes Harue under her wing and soon a three way love triangle develops. Kihachi fancies Harue, although she is much too young for him, but Harue likes Jiro, who keeps his own feelings hidden out of loyalty to Kihachi.

Passing Fancy is the first of a series of films Ozu made featuring the working poor. As movies during the pre-war period were cheap entertainment, the nagaya-dwelling characters likely represent a large swath of the viewing audience of Ozu’s films during this time, in contrast to the post-war middle-class families of his later films like Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953).

Another cheap form of entertainment, naniwa-bushi storytelling takes place in the opening scene of Passing Fancy and provides conceit on which the film is based. Tomio's jokes are a running gag throughout the film, Kihachi tells a lot of tall tales, and Kihachi twice cites the the traditional story of Ohan and Choemon as evidence that Harue might be persuaded to marry him. Although the story is not told within the film, Ozu’s audience would have known the story of forty year old man, Obi-ya Choemon who falls in love with a fourteen year old girl called Ohan who loves him in return. Her family opposes the relationship which ends in elopement and double-suicide. Based on a true story, the tale of Ohan and Choemon has appeared on woodblock prints and was a popular oral tale throughout the Meiji period.

One has to admire the subtlety Ozu employs in order to give nuance to the story. Ozu is known for his use of a static camera, so when a camera does move it acquires an added significance. I noticed two tracking shots in the film. The first occurred at the very beginning, tracking slowly along the floor to reveal the extent of the audience watching the naniwa-bushi performance. I recall identical shots of a theatre audience being used in Ukigusa Monogatari (1934), which also featured Kihachi and Tomio, and its remake Ukigusa (1959). The second tracking shot was of Kihachi's meagre possessions laid out on the floor as he looks for things to pawn to pay for Tomio's medical treatment. This scene, and the scene when Tomio's teacher visits him at the medical center, are perhaps the two most humbling moments for Kihachi in the film.

The seasonal setting of the film is also referred to through subtle visual hints. Kihachi spends much of the film in his underwear and is often scratching himself: a sure indication that it is midsummer in a humid, mosquito-ridden Tokyo. The fireworks that are intercut with the dramatic climax of the film confirm the fact that the story takes place during the month of August. The repeated shots of Kihachi undressing from the legs down also act as a foreshadowing to the end of the film, when he undresses for the last time and makes his final rash decision. The title Passing Fancy refers to the whims that Kihachi makes throughout the film. I like that the original Japanese idiom used in the title – 出来ごころ (Dekigokoro) - contains the word for `heart` (kokoro), because the decisions that Kihachi makes on a whim always come from the heart and are full of good intentions.

Passing Fancy is truly a delight to watch. Even my six-year-old son enjoyed it, laughing out loud at all the slapstick humour. It also reminded me that Ozu is often unfairly put into a box labeled `traditional`, `Japanese`, and `minimalist` when his films are much more complex than meets the eye.

Yasujiro Ozu / Japanese Movie
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008